Corporate chief executive officers (CEOs) have occupied important positions of power in developed societies since the nineteenth century. In this article, we describe how the nature and extent of this power has changed over time in the United States: from the corporate titans of the early twentieth century, to the bureaucratic organization men of the mid-twentieth century, to a new generation of dynamic, charismatic corporate leaders today. We discuss how the shareholder value movement in the 1980s transformed the role of the CEO and how, paradoxically, as the CEOs' compensation increased, their autonomy declined, potentially reducing their ability to focus on the long-term concerns of their firms or the larger society. We review the literature on CEO compensation, tenure, and discretionary actions, including philanthropic contributions, research and development expenditures, and political action. We conclude with a discussion of the social responsibility of contemporary corporate leaders, while pointing to the need for studies with which we can compare the views of today's CEOs with those of earlier decades.


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